The Social Sources of Self

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We tend to think of self-identity as something individual, internal, and stable, but it’s not that simple. I will share some thoughts on how “relationality” is a fundamental condition of human existence and experience. As you’ll see, what persists are patterns of self-awareness, which are memorable but also malleable. We are, in our most vital nature, a project of continuous becoming. Alas, this vital process may also become blocked. Relationality then also becomes a means to right our forward movement.

Development of self begins in that small, intimate relational world of mother and infant. There is no me without this experience of an I-with-thee and a thee-knowing-me. All of this, of course, transpires in the preverbal exchanges that guide care of the child. It’s the gaze, touch, and tone of voice, as well as the associated acts of care, but also the expressions of frustration and distress, and their resolution which restores attachment. The we as a dyadic unit grows in its capacity to function, cope, and adapt.

When it progresses in this way, imperfectly but “good enough”, beliefs form that relationships can be worthy of trust, can prove reliable. Any failings are as seen isolated failures of efficacy. Even as failings, these acts bear a virtuous intent and commitment to care that survives them as a determination to “get it right”. Thus, with belief comes a basis of hope, which can only emerge when there is something yet to be, strivings that live on as active evidence of an underlying capacity for belief and hope. 

A relationship of nurturance manifests as encouragement in the next modality of caring. It’s when the caregiver expresses belief and hope in the child’s independent potential to initiate action and effect change in his/her environment. Especially now, “good enough” becomes advisable (normative) in order to avoid hovering and smothering, while remaining available as a safe harbor when the child is overwhelmed. Knowing this support is available, the child’s distress is quickly displaced by curious confidence.

This positive me (self-concept) reflected back to the child bolsters his/her readiness to enter the social world of peer relations outside the home in those difficult middle school years. Again, belief and hope persist as a basis of confidence, not just their own belief and hope, but their caregiver’s. This positions them to navigate the challenges of this new social arena. Still, even with a healthy level of self-esteem and resilience, the role of caregivers as a safe harbor and sounding board remains important.

With a history of good-enough parenting, youths are well-prepared to shape a social identity, one that is anchored in values of good and bad, right and wrong, but one that is also distinguished by patterns of interest and ability. Of course, one also experiences moments of falling short that evoke painful self-judgment and conscience. We may disappoint ourselves, but we can also fail others who depend upon us as friends, lovers, colleagues. Learning to mend these ruptures is a vital source of maturity.

In fact, learning to form enduring relationships, including the capacity to navigate periods of conflict, is an important part of what enables us to achieve and sustain intimacy. It is through these deeper bonds that we open ourselves to the influence of others. We “unfreeze” the foundational beliefs and values that have heretofore defined us. We discuss them with our intimate other. We hear about theirs too. Individual identities become mutually understood, and the basis for a we-identity emerges.

A deeper sense of authenticity and vitality as a person evolves when we experience life in this way. As we live, adopt roles, accept responsibility, and do the adaptive work of dealing with life’s challenges, we grow. Prosocial motivations arise that focus on encouraging the next generation, promoting the greater good. This is a natural, normatively positive direction of development in adulthood. Retreating from this call to care about more than oneself – at home, at work – can lead to stagnation.

Getting Smart About Stress

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If you are experiencing stress at work or at home, and if it is not resolving despite your best efforts, then you probably need to get smart about stress. But let me be clear. What you need to learn about is your stress. Because stress as a concept or in the abstract is not what’s affecting you. Rather, it’s your unique and habitual ways of experiencing and responding to life’s events (stressors) that keep you in a “box,” and it’s the boxed-in feeling that is your stress.  

The Answer

Two heads are better than one, especially when one of the two heads is someone professionally trained to help you understand your box and how it works to keep you boxed in. The professional I am talking about it is a psychologically trained professional – a psychologist, psychiatric social worker, or licensed mental health counselor.  

When you injure your knee or shoulder, you are usually sent to a physical therapist, and the therapist’s help is usually time-limited. The diagnosis and cause, i.e., what you might be doing habitually that produces the strain and injury, come first. Then there is a treatment regimen part of which occurs in the physical therapist’s office and even more of it is assigned as guidance for behavior outside the clinic. It may include certain strength and skill building, but may also focus on what not to do.  

Well, the psychologically trained professional can help you in a similar role. It can be time-limited, perhaps no more than 4-6 sessions, particularly if it is caught early and is linked to a specific situation. But even when it’s become a more chronic issue, more global in scope, it will seldom take more than 8-12 sessions to unravel the causes and identify and apply solution strategies. How you draw upon the relationship beyond that will depend on the person and situation.  

The Critical Factors

There are internal and external causes, and inside and outside work to do in order to break out of the box, and establish patterns of living that keep you out of the box. They are psycho-social factors rather than tendons and muscles. Personality, temperament, and interpersonal patterns of behavior (thought, feeling, action) constitute the focus of the “inside work.”   

Increased self-awareness frees us to make choices rather allowing autopilot (habits) to make choices for us. These internal causal factors are not set in concrete. We are malleable creatures; it’s what makes us so adaptive. And usually what’s needed is less radical transformation than moderation and management of tendencies that are not inherently flawed.   

The outside work consists of carefully characterizing the situations, relationships, and issues that evoke anxiety and trigger a stress response (external factors). Even more important, is appreciating how the external and internal factors interact to generate the “cognitive appraisal” (thoughts & beliefs) and feelings (fear & threat) that define our boxed-in state.   

Your stress is not “all in your head.” It is real, as is evidenced by the actions and the consequences of the action that it triggers. However, it’s a reality that you can change. And the longer you take to initiate this change, the more your boxed-in ways of feeling and acting will come to represent you in your relations with others. The walls of the box become more impermeable, the issues more global.  

There Are No Off-the-Shelf Solutions

Yes, we know that exercise is a helpful way to discharge the stresses and strains that can accumulate in the course of a busy day. Diet can influence our energy level as well as how well we sleep. The use of mindfulness meditation can be a very effective tool for interrupting the escalating emotions that trigger reactivity. Skills in cognitive-behavioral coping are well proven as a means of stress management.  

But remember, if it’s your stress that you want to address, then you must understand what makes it yours. That is what a psychotherapist can help you do. Call it personal coaching if you wish. Look at it as an in-depth approach to increasing your emotional intelligence (EQ). But whatever you do, don’t neglect this important avenue of personal capacity building. It really pays off, at home and at work!

The Tuckman Model of Team Development

Trust and quality of relationship among members of a group are conditions that make a practical difference.[1] And research confirms something reported to us anecdotally, i.e., that leaders are at times motivated to generate division rather than qualities of cohesion and cooperation that produce team bonds.  They do so for fear of losing their power. This is an expression, even if dysfunctional[2], of security needs that can affect all of us when entering a group. So, there are many reasons to focus on team development and notice the patterns of interaction and the underlying dynamics that grow out of them. 

It would be much easier if all the dynamics (individual, interpersonal, and group-as-a whole) involved in forming and becoming effective were obvious and clear. But, alas, we human beings are too complex for that. Therefore, we must learn from careful, professional, observation-based theory construction what happens at a less conscious level, and with this knowledge anticipate and notice signs of progress and the predictable “growth pains” involved in the development process.[3]  

Among the established models of team development, the Tuckman Model[4] remains the most familiar, intuitive, and popular in group dynamics and team development circles. The most common use of this model follows a sequence of four stages known as forming, storming, norming, and performing. They apply to senior leadership teams as much as they do to any other kinds of work group or teams in the workplace.[5] These stages are briefly described below: 

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Forming

The first stage of the model is characterized by a search for clarity of task, roles, and ground rules. We might regard it essentially as seeking to answer the question “what is our purpose, and how do I/we fit in this group?” At this early stage Individuals may show more dependence and deference to the leader as the task is being defined.  Members then start to explore boundaries that sharpen the task focus and define roles. They begin getting to know one another, exploring their relationships, and experimenting with a wider range of interpersonal dynamics and task behaviors that include greater assertiveness in expressing their point of view and seeking to find a differentiated role in the group.  

Storming

The second stage represents a time of intragroup conflict. In this phase the initial and nominal basis of unity (task) is tested and polarization around interpersonal issues occurs. On the one hand, members may yearn for the security of clearly defined roles and relationships. On the other hand, they may be jockeying for position and may resist moving into unknown areas of interpersonal relations, fearing a loss of security. In this stage, members may have an emotional response to the task, especially when goals are associated with self-understanding and self-change. Emotional responses may be less visible in groups working toward impersonal and intellectual tasks, but resistance may still be present. 

Norming

During the third phase, the group develops cohesion. Members come to know and accept each other’s idiosyncrasies. They express personal opinions more freely and constructively. This results in a disarming effect on defenses that were prominent in the storming phase. The group has learned that even acute episodes of conflict can be resolved and yield important learning if handled in a timely manner. Roles and norms are clearer. Members develop shared mental models. They discover their most effective ways to work together. They feel like a unit and strive to maintain unity. Task conflicts are resolved by giving balanced attention to both cognitive and affective themes to insure genuine alignment. 

Performing

In the final stage of the model, the group develops what Tuckman called ‘functional role relatedness’, which implies a capacity for well-coordinated, interdependent action. They begin to function socially, emotionally, and cognitively as a ‘problem-solving instrument’. There is a noticeable ease that emerges among members as they demonstrate the ability to adapt and play roles that enhance task activities. Structure is supportive of task performance. Roles become flexible and group energy is channeled into the task. Research on team development and performance indicates that teams that stay together over time do develop a performance advantage. There is also an argument to be made for periodic infusions of “new blood”, which may require recycling earlier stages but may also provide fresh perspective. 

[1] For example, Drescher et al (2014) found support for positive changes in trust mediating the relationship between positive changes in shared leadership and positive changes in performance. See also Zhu & Lee (2017).  

[2] Patrick Lencioni’s popular book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, explicitly addresses the underlying dynamics that help or hinder the cause of effective group bonds that promote trust, authenticity, and performance.

[3] See Rutan et al (2007) for a comprehensive review of the dynamics of group interaction and development.

[4] See Bonebright (2010) for a good summary of the Tuckman Model and its continuing popularity since being introduced in 1965.

References Cited  

Bonebright, D.A. (2010). 40 years of Storming: A Historical Review of Tuckman's Model of Small Group Development. Human Resource Development International, 13 (1), 111-120.

Drescher, M. A., Korsgaard, M. A., Welpe, I. M., Picot, A., & Wigand, R. T. (2014). The dynamics of shared leadership: Building trust and enhancing performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(5), 771-783.

Rutan, J. S., Stone, W. N., & Shay, J. J. (2007). Psychodynamic group psychotherapy. 4th ed. New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

Zhu, X., & Lee, K. S. (2017). Global virtual team performance, shared leadership, and trust: Proposing a conceptual framework. The Business & Management Review, 8(4), 31-38. 

Lower Agreeableness = More Stress

Personality and Stress Management

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I'll be making reference to the Big Five Model of personality (see below). But what I really would like to call attention to is one of the five factors of personality that I have long felt is overlooked, misunderstood, and undervalued: Agreeableness.

Big Five Model

These are "continuous variables", that is, our dispositional tendencies may lie on any point between the polar extremes, e.g., between Extraverion & Introversion.

  1. Extraversion (vs Introversion): Warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity, excitement-seeking, positive emotion
  2. Agreeableness (vs Antagonism): Trust, straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty, tender-mindedness
  3. Conscientiousness (vs Unreliability): Competence, order, dutifulness, achievement-striving, self-discipline, deliberation
  4. Neuroticism (vs Emotional stability): Anxiety, angry hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness, vulnerability
  5. Openness (vs Closed-mindedness): Fantasy, aesthetics, feelings, actions, ideas, values

Agreeableness and Stress

Yes, Extraversion is generally associated with a healthy, adaptive approach to life, but that does not mean that those of us who are introverts are inherently disadvantaged. It's the Neuroticism dimension that is most associated with difficulties in managing stress, and it's Agreeableness that is most predictive of effectively managing stress (based on the results of a 2017 meta-analytic study).

Surprise? Maybe. But perhaps it's because of how we define the word "agreeable," especially we achievement-oriented business and professional people. We're often inclined to see agreeable as equivalent to lacking in assertiveness, courage, even moral courage. (By the way, I believe this is part of the masculine bias that colors our thoughts of what it means to achieve, succeed, thrive, and lead.)

In any case, over 20 years ago, it was Agreeableness (especially tender-mindedness) that proved to be most decisive in predicting reemployment of executives in career transition. But it was not off-the-charts agreeableness; rather, it was agreeableness that simply approximated the norms of general society. It was my doctoral research study, and the results resonated with my "clinical" experience in coaching executives.

Since then, emotional intelligence (EQ) and the proven efficacy of mindfulness have won acceptance. We've found that the calm capacity to see life as it is, to meet others where they are, enable us to engage, influence, and shape enduring outcomes. So, listen to those at home who find your intensity or impatience unhelpful. They may be a better benchmark for behavioral norms that your competitive peers in the workplace.

Pay it forward coaching

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We all, or at least most of us with families and dependents, do have to earn a living and pay rent or a mortgage, so there are limits to what we can afford to give away in terms of our time, products, or services. But today I woke up with what seems like a great idea. It's about giving some deserving persons a time-limited developmental coaching experience, that is, if he or she does something to pay it forward.

What's the Deal?

First, the candidate for this pro bono coaching engagement should be someone who would not otherwise have access to a developmental experience of this kind.

Second, the person should be in a position to help others by virtue of their own personal growth - a leader, team leader, or supervisor committed to promoting collaboration.

Third, the person should be willing to use their own time after hours for this coaching, and should be willing to spend 2 hours a week promoting another person's development.

Finally, the person must be willing to share their story (anonymously or publicly) and complete research questionnaires used to report results of the project.

What's the Point?

  1. Most fundamentally, the purpose is to encourage a little kindness, fellow-feeling, and practical support for others whom we are in a position to help.
  2. Life's become more crowded, the pace has quickened, and gaps in income, wealth, and privilege have widened, leaving many feeling marginalized, discouraged.
  3. Those of us who observe and empathize with those adversely affected by this trend can do something - even if it seems limited, small, incremental - so let's do it.

Are You a Candidate?

  • Are you are highly motivated to realize your personal potential to lead, contribute, and make a difference as a leader and collaborator?
  • Are you willing to learn how to help at least one other person become the best they can be while you are completing your own journey of growth and development?
  • If you can answer affirmatively, email me, tell me something about yourself, your situation, and how this pay-it-forward experience could benefit you and others.

The coaching engagement will consist of six meetings, face-to-face or virtual depending upon your location. There will be an intensive 1:1, up-front assessment process, and there may be one or two follow-up group sessions via webinar. I hope to finalize the selection of participants by mid-September.

Address your email inquiry to: information@generativityllc.com